Back in the 1990’s I was an aid worker and saw first hand what terrible places refugee camps are. You can imagine much of it: the discomfort, the dependency on others for everything from food to sanitation, and the chaos. But think of the emotional side too. Everyone who lands up in a refugee camp is missing family, friends, and that huge connection we have to ‘home’.
When I worked in refugee camps during the Kosovo war the vast majority of people there were women and children because the men had either stayed to fight or had been detained or murdered by Serbian forces. So the women who made it across the boarder were scared, lonely, bored, and beside themselves with worry about the people they loved most.
I’ve been kept very closely updated about the refugee crisis as it has unfolded within the region, in Lebanon and Jordon where over a million Syrian refugees are living, and also those who have fled to Europe in desperation. I have met directly with UNHCR, the UN body that coordinates refugee stations, with British charities and with IRC, the massive American agency that has been doing remarkable work inside Syria and across the region.
The situation in Calais is one that has touched us all because it is so close and to see humans living in such squalor at the border between two of the world’s richest and most liberal countries is so shocking.
Caroline Lucas and I recently met with people from Brighton and Hove who’ve been working in Calais since the crisis began. They gave us an up-to-the-minute update on the situation regarding young people who remain in the camp or are being dispersed in France awaiting the processing needed to find a stable home.
The Hummingbird Project and their volunteers gave a harrowing account of the situation. That afternoon I contacted the French embassy and requested a meeting with the ambassador to discuss the situation. Remarkably I was granted one at very short notice. I contacted a few MPs from all parties who have been outspoken and active on this issue to invite them but at such short notice only Stella Creasy and myself were able to attend.
The ambassador was extremely frank, which I appreciated. There remain about 1,000 young people who are eligible to come to the UK under both international and British law, but are still being processed. Based on my experience I told the ambassador just how vulnerable these young people are and ran through the protection measures that need to be in place. I was keen to understand where the diplomatic barriers are with the UK and it is clear that both countries have been at loggerheads at times which has prevented this situation being sorted fairly.
But we are where we are and I am just keen that we move forward from here. I’ve already challenged ministers in the Commons on this situation. Theresa May herself said last year that she wanted to find ways of getting those entitled to be here to do so faster but has not acted upon the measures she announced.
Refugees must be treated with dignity and humanity. Even though the strongest mostly make it to our shores it does not mean that they have somehow experienced less horror than others that are fleeing war and persecution and the prospect of certain death. For these people, we must be open-hearted in their time of great need. Our own city has made provision and has done so in a way that does not prevent us looking after people already living here who are vulnerable – the issue of homelessness and rough sleeping, for example, is not the fault of refugees its the fault of central government policies on funding and recourse allocation so it is not a choice between helping one or the other, we as a wealthy nation can and should do both. I, for one, will continue to fight for just that. Yours, Peter